For many of us, we spend our lives chasing the things that we believe, will make us happy. I have fallen into this trap before, I’m sure you have as well. Some of us seek wealth, some of us seek fame or fortune, others seek the approval of their friends and family. We make the mistake of assuming that once we get that promotion, once we obtain that big house or once we marry that special person, that then and only then, we will have found happiness. I hope that in this article, I will convince you why this approach doesn’t work and hopefully, offer you an alternate route to living a happy and fulfilling life.
Why we’re wrong about happiness.
In his book ‘Stumbling on Happiness’, Dan Gilbert makes the point that as human beings, we are actually very poor, when it comes to making predictions about our future emotional states. More specifically, we are particularly inept in understanding what will and will not make us happy. We often make what psychologists describe as affective forecasting errors; the things we predict we make us happy, rarely do.
To demonstrate this point, let’s take a look at a famous study comparing the lives of both lottery winners and paraplegic victims. In 1978, the researchers Brickman, Coates and Bulman, wanted to compare the happiness of these two very distinct groups of people. In their study, the researchers interviewed lottery winners, non lottery winners and paraplegic victims asking them a variety of questions, regarding their day-to-day levels of happiness.
Two key findings emerged from this study; firstly, individuals who had won a large sum of money on the lottery, reported feeling no happier than the average person on the street. Secondly, even though the lottery winners were slightly happier than the accident victims, the difference was much less than one might have predicted.
The key take-away is this; most of us would assume that winning the lottery would be a life changing event, something that would surely cause our happiness levels to skyrocket. The facts however, say otherwise. The research tells us, that those people who win the lottery, are in the long-term, no happier than their next door neighbour. So, what’s going on here?
The Hedonic Treadmill.
How can it be true, that we can spend our lives in pursuit of something, that once obtained, won’t actually make us too much happier than we were before? How can it be true that lottery winners and not living a life of pure joy, whilst paraplegic victims are not utterly miserable?
Leaving out the details.
Let me propose two answers. The first answer, one that is suggested by Dan Gilbert, is that when we think about the future, we think about it in a very vague and abstract way. We leave out the details. To give an example, I want you to imagine what it would be like, if tomorrow you were to wake up and look outside, to see your dream car sitting on your driveway. What would it be like, to own that beautiful Aston Martin?
You probably conjured up some vision, seeing yourself cruising down a country lane with the roof down, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. What you almost certainly didn’t imagine, was the frequent trips to the petrol station or the agony of trying to fit the weekly shop into the tiny boot of such a car. In other words, you failed to consider the details of what owning a 2 car sports car would actually be like.
I think in many areas of life, we make this mistake. When thinking about that promotion at work, we envisage the big pay rise and the luxurious office, but we neglect to consider the mountains of paperwork that will be sitting on our desk every day. This inability to consider the finer details is one of the key reasons, why the things we imagine will bring us joy, fail to do just that.
The Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility.
The second reason, why we’re wrong about happiness, is that the human brain is remarkably good at adapting. This makes sense in evolutionary terms, 100,000 years ago, when we were living out in tribes on the plains of Africa, those who failed to adapt, failed to survive.
I want you to imagine that one evening you are feeling hungry, and so decide to order yourself a large Domino’s Pizza. The Pizza arrives and you dive into that first slice, it’s delicious. You move on to a second slice which is also pretty nice, but not quite as satisfying as the first. Half an hour later and you’re 6 slices in and by this point, you’re actually getting pretty sick of Pizza. This example demonstrates a key principle in economics referred to as Diminishing Marginal Utility. Essentially, each additional slice of Pizza provides a little bit less pleasure than the previous.
This law doesn’t just apply to Pizza, but to pretty much every area of your life. Let’s take the example of finally getting that big promotion at work. Not only do you get a nice pay rise, but a company car and a big office with an amazing view. At first, everything seems great. But with each passing day you find that your new office, simply becomes the office. The incredibly view you used to get lost in, is now something you barely notice and before long, you are no happier with your life than before you ever got promoted.
The point is that we adapt to what we have in life very quickly, It’s this principle that can explain how lottery winners are not too much happier than the victims of horrible car accidents. Whether it’s a new gadget, a nicer view from our bedroom window or a bit more money in the bank account. The things that we imagine will bring us joy, don’t actually make us any happier in the long-term.
Okay, so what’s the solution?
For many of us, we spend our lives chasing the reward, rather than focusing on the process. What do I mean by this? We might spend years in a job we find tedious in hopes that one day, we might get that promotion so that then we can find meaningful work. Perhaps we spend years studying for a degree that if we’re honest, we don’t really enjoy, in hopes that once we graduate then our parents will be proud of us. Maybe we slave away for almost a decade on a business venture we’re really not that passionate about, in hopes of becoming rich so that then we can become happy.
The problem, is that when we spend our entire lives focused on the reward, on the finish line, we lose sight of what matters today. There will always be more money you could earn, a bigger house you could live in or another promotion to strive towards. But the important thing to remember is that happiness can only be experienced right now. You can’t be happy tomorrow, you can only be happy today.
Perhaps then, the key to a happier life is to learn to live in the moment, to enjoy the little pleasures that each day offers us, to learn to appreciate the things we have, rather than focusing on the things, we think we want. Here are three quick tips on how to learn to focus on the present moment, and to start living today, rather than tomorrow.
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Living in the here and now.
One problem with the pursuit of happiness, is that we’re constantly focusing on the things our lives lack. Perhaps then, by learning to practice gratitude, we can shift our focus from the things we want, to the things we already have.
One technique practiced by the Stoics is that of negative visualisation. In order to practice this, take a few minutes every morning and reflect upon one thing in your life you have taken for granted and imagine, visualize what it would be like to lose that thing from your life. Imagine what it would feel like for your house to burn down, to lose your job or for your partner to leave you. Really try to visualize every detail of what it feel like, to be called into the office one day and told by your boss, it’s time to pack up your desk and leave.
I am sure you have had the experience of having some terrible dream, perhaps one where a loved one is killed or you do something hugely embarrassing in public, however upon waking up, you feel a huge surge of relief. Negative visualisation works in a similar way. In taking a few moments to truly consider what it would be like to lose what you have, you can’t help but feel more grateful for it.
Make time for the things you enjoy.
Dedicate a small chunk of time every single day, to the things in life you enjoy doing, for no other reason, than the fact you enjoy doing them. In my own life for example, I love to read and so I set aside a small amount of time everyday, to engage in this activity.
What are the things that you take the most pleasure from in life? Cooking a meal for your family? Taking a walk in nature? Watching a great movie? Whatever it is, take some time everyday, to do something, simply for the sake of doing it. Take some time to enjoy life right here and right now.
Re-evaluate your goals.
Whilst it’s great to have ambition in life, if you’re pursuing a goal simply for the reward, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate whether you’re on the right path. Perhaps you’re studying to become a Lawyer because you think such a career will make you rich, even thought you’re hating every second of your law degree.
Maybe you’re pursuing a business venture you’re really not passionate about, simply because you like the idea of becoming your own boss. Perhaps you’re working overtime in a job you hate, in hopes of paying off your mortgage a few years earlier.
If you’re solely focused on the outcome, solely focused on the reward, even though you’re not enjoying the process itself, it may be time to ask yourself, if you’re on the right track.
We often don’t know what will bring us happiness in life. Often the things we believe we bring us the most joy, bring us the least. What we do know however, is that the only time and place that we can be happy, is right here and right now.
If you’re not enjoying the journey, perhaps it’s worth asking yourself if the destination is truly worth it, once you finally get there?
Before you go ..
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